What “Patriots” get wrong about Patriotism.

Often the most everyday concepts are the hardest to define.

American Flag flying high over Greenfield, Massachusetts (photo by author)

Here in the States we are just hitting peak season for the Stars and Stripes. The stretch between Memorial Day at the end of May and Independence Day in early July is the banner version of New England’s leaf season. Flags are everywhere. Main Street Lampposts? Check. Old barns in the middle of nowhere? Check. Pick up trucks, shorts, bikinis, car dealerships? Check, check, check and, oh my god, check. Seeing the red, white and blue everywhere got me thinking is this patriotism or nationalism?

Before I could answer that question though I needed actual definitions for each of those terms. Which turned out to be a bit harder than I thought it’d be. Below you’ll find what I believe to be as thorough a definition of American Patriotism as I have heard. I hope to have a similarly well researched definition for American Nationalism by the end of flag season.

What is Patriotism?

Fourth of July Parades with visions of marching soldiers young and old. Baseball games smelling of Cracker Jacks and beer. The crispy goodness of an Apple Pie, or the comforting heat of a freshly grilled hot dog. These are quintessential elements of Americana. Throw in the Star Spangled Banner (Song and Flag) and the Pledge of Allegiance and you have all the trappings of patriotism, American Style. But these are just the window dressing. Beneath all the red, white and blue there exists the true definition of patriotism. But what is it?

An indefinable concept

“Only something which has no history is capable of being defined.”

I have no idea whether Friedrich Nietzsche was thinking of a specific concept when he penned those words in 1887. However, if you were forced to guess, you could do worse than suppose that he was contemplating patriotism. Though the word patriotism was first used just more than three hundred years ago, the idea of patriotism probably drops behind only religion on the all time list of bloodiest concepts. Invoking patriotism has equated to a call to arms far more often than not.

I admit that my next sentence is hardly scientific; nonetheless, I believe it to be accurate. If you asked a hundred people to name a great American patriot, the responses naming wartime generals or politicians, such as Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Eisenhower, would far outnumber those identifying Americans such as (Martin Luther) King, (Susan B.) Anthony, (John) Muir, or (Harriet) Tubman. Why is that? Why is an act of physical violence seen as more patriotic than an act of civic advancement? Put more bluntly, why is killing a human being (or a million) more patriotic than saving one (or a million)?

Sorry Friedrich, I’ve got to try

“Love for, or devotion to, one’s country.”

That is Merriam-Webster’s very succinct definition of Patriotism. There is no mention of battle. The definition is devoid of information about specific governmental or economic systems. The phrase doesn’t even indicate a preferred creed or pledge. All that is required is to simply love or be devoted to one’s country. That’s it. Of course, to define patriotism would then also require us to define the country to which a patriot is devoted. But we’ll get to that momentarily.

For now, let’s proceed with the dictionary’s definition, which unfortunately, may only serve to prove Mr. Nietzsche’s case. Because, while it should be so simple as to say that only love and devotion are required, in reality it is not. If love of country was all that was required of a patriot then the names of Civil Rights icons such as Milk, Marshall, Stanton, Chavez and Parks would carry at least as much weight as those of Grant, Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur. If devotion was the only prerequisite for entry into the patriots’ club, then surely the club would have at least as many devotees of Audubon as of Lee. Right?

Patriotism requires a country

Let’s assume for a moment that the definition above is correct; that love for, or devotion to, one’s country are the only necessary characteristics of a patriot. Then, as I am an American, please allow me a simple substitution (and minor rearrangement) in the definition: A Patriotic American is one who shows a love for, or devotion to, the United States of America.

America’s Principle

If this is a true statement, and I think that it is, then the next obvious step is to define America. To paraphrase George William Curtis:

“[America] is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.”

Sounds like a good place to start. So what is America’s principle? An easy answer might be the Constitution. However, I believe that the document that forms our government’s backbone results from our principle and is not in and of itself a principle. A principle is an idea. And not just any idea either. It is the one unifying concept that defines a people.

Right about now I’d like to write out a clear and concise statement of principle about which every American could agree. And amazingly, I can.

Patriotism Defined

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

— The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence [slightly modified]

This sentence, though its clarity is not absolute, is as good a statement of principle as any nation could hope for. As patriotism is loyalty to a nation’s principle it follows that a true American Patriot supports the principle that all of us are created equal and have the right to live free and to pursue our own version of happiness.

There is also the matter of understanding that the limit of one’s rights exist precisely where they infringe on the rights of another. But that is a definition for another day.

Well that was easy. With the help of a dictionary, a German philosopher, a 19th century statesman and The Declaration of Independence, we have arrived at an ironclad definition for American Patriotism. Sort of.

Next up … Nationalism Defined.

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Sparky Von Plinsky

Sparky Von Plinsky

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Writing about my struggles to maximize my positive impact, eliminate my negative impact and enjoy life along the way.